Pastoralists from 23 countries to meet in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is to host an international gathering of pastoralists, representing 23 countries from across the globe, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced on Monday.

Spanish shepherds, Mongolian camel owners and herders from 21 other countries will discuss the challenge of preserving their way of life at a unique international conference.

It is estimated that there are more than 50 million pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, with up to 8 million in Ethiopia, representing 20 different ethnic groups. Pastoralism is an ancient mode of mobile livestock production, whereby shepherds and herders endure harsh environments in order to provide their animals with better grazing. They often travel hundreds of kilometres.

"It is a way of life and livelihood that some argue is not viable in today's world and, often, it is believed we are marginalised from the political processes and neglected by the power centres - leading to poverty and conflict," said Borena elder Dido Guyo, a pastoralist from southern Ethiopia. "Despite this, pastoralists have found ways of countering these forces and have developed their means of production and are now insisting on their rights."

The five-day Global Pastoralist Gathering will take place in the remote trading village of South Omo, near the Kenyan border, beginning 29 January. It follows a similar meeting for Ethiopian pastoralists last year.

The gathering will focus on how their way of life can be more widely understood and how governments and institutions can recognise their needs, interests and how they can influence change. Discussions will also focus on how international programmes can support pastoralists' way of life, governance and culture.

The more than 200 participants will include pastoralists from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Kazakhstan, India, Iran, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Israel, Syria, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, U.K and Canada, said OCHA. Representatives of governments, UN agencies and universities will also attend.

"This is the first time the world's pastoralists have been brought together on such a scale," organiser Patta Scott-Villiers of the Pastoralist Communication Initiative said. "It is not without its challenges."

Scott-Villiers said there was no infrastructure in South Omo for a gathering of this magnitude, so the event would be held under tents in a "traditional meeting site of the local Hamar pastoralists".